of the Little Blue Box
A story so incredible it may
even make you feel sorry for the phone companys...
The Official Phreaker's Manual - by Ron
Printed in the October 1971 issue of Esquire
Magazine. If you happen to be in a library and
come across a collection of Esquire magazines,
the October 1971 issue is the first issue printed
in the smaller format. The story begins on page
116 with a picture of a blue box.
|Note by the Webmaster: I
found this note about the following
written by John
T Draper (AKA Captain Crunch)
Quote Captain Crunch: "After
the Esquire article came out, Steve
Wozniak read it and found
it fascinating, and really wanted
to build the blue box and play
with it himself. It didn't take
him long to realize that the tone
frequency combinations used in
the article were deliberately changed
to protect this fatal flaw in Ma
Woz contacted me somehow, through
KKUP radio, where another DJ from
KPFA knew me and mentioned to Woz
that he knew me. The KPFA DJ called
me up and told me to contact Woz.
At first, I didn't think it was safe
to discuss this with a stranger,
but I finally agreed to phone Woz.
Blue Box - Manufacturer:
Stephen Wozniak - Date: c. 1972
Courtesy of Allen
I called him up, and he was really
excited that I actually would call
him, and talked me into driving to
Berkeley to visit him. I finally
locate the dorm where Woz, Steve
Jobs, and Bill Klaxton was waiting
for me. After the usual introductions,
it became obvious that Woz didn't
know how to use the blue box, and
I didn't want Woz to misuse it and
eventually get detected, so I took
time to explain the do's and don'ts
on using this amazing tone device.
Woz was relentless in his questions
and I was patient enough to tell
him how to make international calls,
so for fun we tried to call the Pope
in Rome. For those that don't know
the Woz, he just loves to play pranks
on everyone. Woz wanted to call the
Pope and make a "Confession".
By this time, I said to myself... "These
crazy college kids!" After Woz's
lesson, I eventually left, with a
stern warning to Woz not to make
and sell them, because this would
cause problems for all of us.
John Draper aka Captain Crunch and Oliver from myoldmac.net at
Computer Gaming Museum Berlin 2012
Woz got a little greedy and made
enough of them to sell for enough
money for school, and to fund his
computer project which eventually
became the Apple I. I repeatedly
contacted Woz to make sure he wasn't
misusing the box, and eventually
learned he was selling them for $150
a piece. In each one, he had an inscription "He
has the whole world in his hands",
and instructions for making international
One day, when Woz was driving from
his parents home in Sunnyvale to
UC Berkeley, his car broke down somewhere
near Fremont. So he thought he would
try and use his blue box to place
a call. Just then, a police car pulls
up and a policeman gets out and asks
Woz for his ID. As the cop was checking
things out, he noticed the box sitting
in the pay phone and asked "What's
that?". Woz said "It's
my Synthesizer for an electronic
project". The cop was pressing
the buttons, playing with it, then
handed it hack and said "A guy
named Moog beat you to it" and
Woz sold the box to another acquaintance
who was totally uncool and eventually
brought me to the attention of Bell
Security by his constant bragging
about his ability to make free calls.
He was in a San Jose high school
and mentioned my name to his school's
Activities Director. Nothing came
of it, but I tried to distance myself
from him as much as possible.
Eventually, this kid got busted,
who had Woz's box. From that time
on, we all agreed to lay low and
not mess with anything for a while.
More and more of Woz's customers
got busted, mostly for leaving tell
tale evidence by making a large amount
of 800 number calls."
Steve WOZniak Phone
This note about
t the Blue Box is directly written
by Steve Wozniak - source: www.woz.org
Q From e-mail:
How did you make the blue box?
Do you still own one? Also..
Do you have the apple I still
or any screen shots of it and
programs? If so send me some.
I read an article in Esquire Magazine.
It was about the October edition
in 1971. The article was entitled "Secrets
of the Blue Box--fiction" by
Ron Rosenblum. Halfway through
the article I had to call my best
friend, Steve Jobs, and read parts
of this long article to him. It
was about secret engineers that
had special equipment in vans that
could tap into phone cables and
redirect the phone networks of
the world. The article had blind
phone phreaks like Joe Engessia
Jr. of Nashville, and the hero
of them all, Captain Crunch. It
was a science fiction world but
was told in a very real way. Too
real a way. I stopped and told
Steve that it sounded real, not
like fiction. They gave too many
engineering details and talked
on too real a way to have been
made up. They even gave out some
of the frequencies that the blue
box used to take control of the
international phone network.
The next day was Sunday. Steve and
I drove to SLAC (Stanford Linear
Accelerator Center, the same place
the Homebrew Computer Club would
meet 4 years later) because they
always left a door or two unlocked
and nobody thought anything about
a couple of strangers reading books
and magazines in their technical
library. Finally we found a book
that had the exact same frequencies
that had been mentioned in the Esquire
article. Now we had the complete
We went back to Steve's house and
built two, somewhat unstable, multivabrator
oscillators. We could see the instability
on a frequency counter, but we were
in a hurry. We would set one oscillator
to 700 Hz and the other to 900 Hz
(for a "1") and record
it on a tape recorder. Then we'd
adjust the oscillators and record
the next digit, and so on. But it
wasn't good enough to make a call
as in the article. So we tried one
oscillator at a time. It still wasn't
good enough. I was off to Berkeley
the next day so it would be some
weeks before I designed a digital
blue box that never missed a note.
The key to debugging it was a guy
in the dorm, Mike Joseph, that had
perfect pitch. If it didn't work,
he'd tell me what notes he heard.
If one of them was a C-sharp and
was supposed to be an A, I could
look up the C-sharp frequency and
find out where my frequency divider
was off, and replace a diode that
was bad. All my problems were diodes
that I bought at Radio Shack in a
bag where some might actually work.
Steve Jobs and Steve
Wozniak in 1975 with a Blue Box -
found at woz.org
The key to the phone network then
was a high E note, two octaves above
the high E string on a guitar. It
was 2600 Hz. The Captain Crunch cerial
whistle could blow this note and
seize a phone line. The blue box
then took over with it's dual frequency
combinations known as 'multfrequency'
or MF, similar to touch tone frequencies
but not the same. Some phone systems
worked on SF, or Single Frequency.
The 2600 Hz Captain Crunch whistle
could make the entire call. One long
whistle to seize the line, a short
one for a "1", two short
ones for a "2", etc. The
blind phone phreak, Joe Engressia,
could dial an entire call just by
whistling it out of his own mouth!
If you want to test this principal,
play 2600 Hz into and long distance
call and you'll be disconnected.
We had fun doing that in the dorms.
But don't be stupid and try to make
a blue box today. It's much easier
to make or program, but you're nearly
guaranteed to get caught right away
in most places. I experimented with
it in 1972 but even then I paid for
my own calls. I only used the blue
box to see how many things I could
I have Apple I's and original software
and things but they're in storage
and I don't have time to get them
out and get them working right now.
The Official Phreaker's Manual
Printed in the October 1971
issue of Esquire Magazine.
The Blue Box Is Introduced:
Its Qualities Are Remarked
I am in the expensively furnished living room
of Al Gilbertson (His real name has been changed.),
the creator of the "blue box." Gilbertson
is holding one of his shiny black-and-silver "blue
boxes" comfortably in the palm of his hand,
pointing out the thirteen little red push buttons
sticking up from the console.
He is dancing his fingers over the buttons,
tapping out discordant beeping electronic jingles.
He is trying to explain to me how his little
blue box does nothing less than place the entire
telephone system of the world, satellites, cables
and all, at the service of the blue-box operator,
free of charge. "That's what it does. Essentially
it gives you the power of a super operator. You
seize a tandem with this top button," he
presses the top button with his index finger
and the blue box emits a high-pitched cheep, "and
like that" -- cheep goes the blue box again
-- "you control the phone company's long-distance
switching systems from your cute little Princes
phone or any old pay phone. And you've got anonymity.
The phone company knows where she is and what
she's doing. But with your beeper box, once you
hop onto a trunk, say from a Holiday Inn 800
(toll-free) number, they don't know where you
are, or where you're coming from, they don't
know how you slipped into their lines and popped
up in that 800 number. They don't even know anything
illegal is going on. And you can obscure your
origins through as many levels as you like. You
can call next door by way of White Plains, then
over to Liverpool by cable, and then back here
by satellite. You can call yourself from one
pay phone all the way around the world to a pay
phone next to you. And you get your dime back
too." "And they can't trace the calls?
They can't charge you?"
"Not if you do it the right way. But you'll
find that the free-call thing isn't really as
exciting at first as the feeling of power you
get from having one of these babies in your hand.
I've watched people when they first get hold
of one of these things and start using it, and
discover they can make connections, set up crisscross
and zigzag switching patterns back and forth
across the world. They hardly talk to the people
they finally reach. They say hello and start
thinking of what kind of call to make next. They
go a little crazy." He looks down at the
neat little package in his palm. His fingers
are still dancing, tapping out beeper patterns. "I
think it's something to do with how small my
models are. There are lots of blue boxes around,
but mine are the smallest and most sophisticated
electronically. I wish I could show you the prototype
we made for our big syndicate order." He
sighs. "We had this order for a thousand
beeper boxes from a syndicate front man in Las
Vegas. They use them to place bets coast to coast,
keep lines open for hours, all of which can get
expensive if you have to pay. The deal was a
thousand blue boxes for $300 apiece. Before then
we retailed them for $1500 apiece, but $300,000
in one lump was hard to turn down. We had a manufacturing
deal worked out in the Philippines.
Everything ready to go. Anyway, the model I
had ready for limited mass production was small
enough to fit inside a flip-top Marlboro box.
It had flush touch panels for a keyboard, rather
than these unsightly buttons, sticking out. Looked
just like a tiny portable radio. In fact, I had
designed it with a tiny transistor receiver to
get one AM channel, so in case the law became
suspicious the owner could switch on the radio
part, start snapping his fingers, and no one
could tell anything illegal was going on. I thought
of everything for this model -- I had it lined
with a band of thermite which could be ignited
by radio signal from a tiny button transmitter
on your belt, so it could be burned to ashes
instantly in case of a bust. It was beautiful.
A beautiful little machine. You should have seen
the faces on these syndicate guys when they came
back after trying it out. They'd hold it in their
palm like they never wanted to let it go, and
they'd say, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe
it.' You probably won't believe it until you
Box in Museum - Copyright RaD man.
Cropped by David Remahl 2004.
The blue box previously owned by Steve
Wozniak, on display at the Computer
The Blue Box Is Tested: Certain Connections
About eleven o'clock two nights later Fraser
Lucey has a blue box in the palm of his left
hand and a phone in the palm of his right. He
is standing inside a phone booth next to an isolated
shut-down motel off Highway 1. I am standing
outside the phone booth. Fraser likes to show
off his blue box for people. Until a few weeks
ago when Pacific Telephone made a few arrests
in his city, Fraser Lucey liked to bring his
blue box (This particular blue box, like most
blue boxes, is not blue. Blue boxes have come
to be called "blue boxes"
either because 1) The first blue box ever confiscated
by phone-company security men happened to be
blue, or 2) To distinguish them from "black
Black boxes are devices, usually a resistor in
series, which, when attached to home phones,
allow all incoming calls to be made without charge
to one's caller.) to parties. It never failed:
a few cheeps from his device and Fraser became
the center of attention at the very hippest of
gatherings, playing phone tricks and doing request
numbers for hours. He began to take orders for
his manufacturer in Mexico. He became a dealer.
Fraser is cautious now about where he shows
off his blue box. But he never gets tired of
playing with it. "It's like the first time
every time," he tells me. Fraser puts a
dime in the slot. He listens for a tone and holds
the receiver up to my ear. I hear the tone. Fraser
begins describing, with a certain practiced air,
what he does while he does it. "I'm dialing
an 800 number now. Any 800 number will do. It's
toll free. Tonight I think I'll use the -----
(he names a well-know rent-a-car company) 800
number. Listen, It's ringing. Here, you hear
it? Now watch." He places the blue box over
the mouthpiece of the phone so that the one silver
and twelve black push buttons are facing up toward
me. He presses the silver button -- the one at
the top -- and I hear that high-pitched beep.
"That's 2600 cycles per second to be exact,"
says Lucey. "Now, quick. listen." He
shoves the earpiece at me. The ringing has vanished.
Wozniak's Blue Box - ca 1972
- Found at computerhistory.org
The line gives a slight hiccough, there is a
sharp buzz, and then nothing but soft white noise.
"We're home free now," Lucey tells
me, taking back the phone and applying the blue
box to its mouthpiece once again. "We're
up on a tandem, into a long-lines trunk. Once
you're up on a tandem, you can send yourself
anywhere you want to go." He decides to
check out London first. He chooses a certain
pay phone located in Waterloo Station. This particular
pay phone is popular with the phone-phreaks network
because there are usually people walking by at
all hours who will pick it up and talk for a
while. of the box. "That's Key Pulse. It
tells the tandem we're ready to give it instructions.
First I'll punch out KP 182 START, which will
slide us into the overseas sender in White Plains." I
hear a neat clunk-cheep. "I think we'll
head over to England by satellite. Cable is actually
faster and the connection is somewhat better,
but I like going by satellite. So I just punch
out KP Zero 44. The Zero is supposed to guarantee
a satellite connection and 44 is the country
code for England. Okay... we're there. In Liverpool
actually. Now all I have to do is punch out the
London area code which is 1, and dial up the
pay phone. Here, listen, I've got a ring now." I
hear the soft quick purr-purr of a London ring.
Then someone picks up the phone.
"Hello," says the London voice.
"Hello. Who's this?" Fraser asks.
"Hello. There's actually nobody here. I
just picked this up while I was passing by. This
is a public phone. There's no one here to answer
"Hello. Don't hang up. I'm calling from
the United States.",
"Oh. What is the purpose of the call? This
is a public phone you know."
"Oh. You know. To check out, uh, to find
out what's going on in London. How is it there?"
"Its five o'clock in the morning. It's raining
"Oh. Who are you?"
The London passerby turns out to be an R.A.F.
enlistee on his way back to the base in Lincolnshire,
with a terrible hangover after a thirty-six-hour
He and Fraser talk about the rain. They agree
that it's nicer when it's not raining. They say
good-bye and Fraser hangs up. His dime returns
with a nice clink.
"Isn't that far out," he says grinning
at me. "London, like that." Fraser
squeezes the little blue box affectionately in
"I told ya this thing is for real. Listen,
if you don't mind I'm gonna try this girl I know
in Paris. I usually give her a call around this
time. It freaks her out. This time I'll use the
------ (a different rent-a-car company) 800 number
and we'll go by overseas cable, 133; 33 is the
country code for France, the 1 sends you by cable.
Okay, here we go.... Oh damn. Busy. Who could
she be talking to at this time?"
A state police car cruises slowly by the motel.
The car does not stop, but Fraser gets nervous.
We hop back into his car and drive ten miles
in the opposite direction until we reach a Texaco
station locked up for the night. We pull up to
a phone booth by the tire pump. Fraser dashes
inside and tries the Paris number. It is busy
"I don't understand who she could be talking
to. The circuits may be busy. It's too bad I
haven't learned how to tap into lines overseas
with this thing yet."
Fraser begins to phreak around, as the phone
phreaks say. He dials a leading nationwide charge
card's 800 number and punches out the tones that
bring him the time recording in Sydney, Australia.
He beeps up the weather recording in Rome, in
Italian of course. He calls a friend in Boston
and talks about a certain over-the-counter stock
they are into heavily. He finds the Paris number
busy again. He calls up "Dial a Disc"
in London, and we listen to Double Barrel by
David and Ansil Collins, the number-one hit of
the week in London. He calls up a dealer of another
sort and talks in code. He calls up Joe Engressia,
the original blind phone-phreak genius, and pays
his respects. There are other calls. Finally
Fraser gets through to his young lady in Paris.
They both agree the circuits must have been
busy, and criticize the Paris telephone system.
At two-thirty in the morning Fraser hangs up,
pockets his dime, and drives off, steering with
one hand, holding what he calls his "lovely
little blue box"
in the other.
John Draper is holding the book "Hackertales" (www.hackertales.de) which includes his life story, if you have wondered what he is holding. Photo courtessy of Evrim Sen.
John "Captain Crunch"
Formerly a Phone Phreak, John Draper once gained
fame (and prison sentences) from his skills in
manipulating the telephone system. His "handle"
came from the inclusion of a plastic whistle
in Captain Crunch cereal in the 1960's which
could, with proper manipulation, send out a control
tone that would affect telephone systems of the
You Can Call Long Distance For Less Than You
"You see, a few years ago the phone company
made one big mistake," Gilbertson explains
two days later in his apartment. "They were
careless enough to let some technical journal
publish the actual frequencies used to create
all their multi-frequency tones. Just a theoretical
article some Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer
was doing about switching theory, and he listed
the tones in passing. At ----- (a well-known
technical school) I had been fooling around with
phones for several years before I came across
a copy of the journal in the engineering library.
I ran back to the lab and it took maybe twelve
hours from the time I saw that article to put
together the first working blue box. It was bigger
and clumsier than this little baby, but it worked."
It's all there on public record in that technical
journal written mainly by Bell Lab people for
other telephone engineers. Or at least it was
public. "Just try and get a copy of that
issue at some engineering-school library now.
Bell has had them all red-tagged and withdrawn
from circulation," Gilbertson tells me.
"But it's too late. It's all public now.
And once they became public the technology needed
to create your own beeper device is within the
range of any twelve-year-old kid, any twelve-year-old
blind kid as a matter of fact. And he can do
it in less than the twelve hours it took us.
Blind kids do it all the time. They can't build
anything as precise and compact as my beeper
box, but theirs can do anything mine can do."
"Okay. About twenty years ago A.T.&T.
made a multi-billion-dollar decision to operate
its entire long-distance switching system on
twelve electronically generated combinations
of twelve master tones. Those are the tones you
sometimes hear in the background after you've
dialed a long-distance number. They decided to
use some very simple tones -- the tone for each
number is just two fixed single-frequency tones
played simultaneously to create a certain beat
frequency. Like 1300 cycles per second and 900
cycles per second played together give you the
tone for digit 5. Now, what some of these phone
phreaks have done is get themselves access to
an electric organ. Any cheap family home-entertainment
organ. Since the frequencies are public knowledge
now -- one blind phone phreak has even had them
recorded in one of the talking books for the
blind -- they just have to find the musical notes
on the organ which correspond to the phone tones.
Then they tape them. For instance, to get Ma
Bell's tone for the number 1, you press down
organ keys FD5 and AD5 (900 and 700 cycles per
second) at the same time. To produce the tone
for 2 it's FD5 and CD6 (1100 and 700 c.p.s).
The phone phreaks circulate the whole list of
notes so there's no trial and error anymore."
He shows me a list of the rest of the phone
numbers and the two electric organ keys that
"Actually, you have to record these notes
at 3 3/4 inches-per-second tape speed and double
it to 7 1/2 inches-per-second when you play them
back, to get the proper tones," he adds.
"So once you have all the tones recorded,
how do you plug them into the phone system?"
"Well, they take their organ and their
cassette recorder, and start banging out entire
phone numbers in tones on the organ, including
country codes, routing instructions, 'KP' and
'Start' tones. Or, if they don't have an organ,
someone in the phone-phreak network sends them
a cassette with all the tones recorded, with
a voice saying 'Number one,' then you have the
tone, 'Number two,' then the tone and so on.
So with two cassette recorders they can put together
a series of phone numbers by switching back and
forth from number to number. Any idiot in the
country with a cheap cassette recorder can make
all the free calls he wants."
"You mean you just hold the cassette recorder
up the mouthpiece and switch in a series of beeps
you've recorded? The phone thinks that anything
that makes these tones must be its own equipment?"
"Right. As long as you get the frequency
within thirty cycles per second of the phone
company's tones, the phone equipment thinks it
hears its own voice talking to it. The original
granddaddy phone phreak was this blind kid with
perfect pitch, Joe Engressia, who used to whistle
into the phone. An operator could tell the difference
between his whistle and the phone company's electronic
tone generator, but the phone company's switching
circuit can't tell them apart. The bigger the
phone company gets and the further away from
human operators it gets, the more vulnerable
it becomes to all sorts of phone phreaking."
A Guide for the Perplexed
"But wait a minute," I stop Gilbertson.
"If everything you do sounds like phone-company
equipment, why doesn't the phone company charge
you for the call the way it charges its own equipment?"
"Okay. That's where the 2600-cycle tone
comes in. I better start from the beginning."
The beginning he describes for me is a vision
of the phone system of the continent as thousands
of webs, of long-line trunks radiating from each
of the hundreds of toll switching offices to
the other toll switching offices. Each toll switching
office is a hive compacted of thousands of long-distance
tandems constantly whistling and beeping to tandems
in far-off toll switching offices. The tandem
is the key to the whole system. Each tandem is
a line with some relays wih the capability of
signalling any other tandem in any other toll
switching office on the continent, either directly
one-to-one or by programming a roundabout route
through several other tandems if all the direct
routes are busy. For instance, if you want to
call from New York to Los Angeles and traffic
is heavy on all direct trunks between the two
cities, your tandem in New York is programmed
to try the next best route, which may send you
down to a tandem in New Orleans, then up to San
Francisco, or down to a New Orleans tandem, back
to an Atlanta tandem, over to an Albuquerque
tandem and finally up to Los Angeles.
When a tandem is not being used, when it's sitting
there waiting for someone to make a long-distance
call, it whistles. One side of the tandem, the
side "facing" your home phone, whistles
at 2600 cycles per second toward all the home
phones serviced by the exchange, telling them
it is at their service, should they be interested
in making a long-distance call. The other side
of the tandem is whistling 2600 c.p.s. into one
or more long-distance trunk lines, telling the
rest of the phone system that it is neither sending
nor receiving a call through that trunk at the
moment, that it has no use for that trunk at
"When you dial a long-distance number the
first thing that happens is that you are hooked
into a tandem. A register comes up to the side
of the tandem facing away from you and presents
that side with the number you dialed. This sending
side of the tandem stops whistling 2600 into
its trunk line. When a tandem stops the 2600
tone it has been sending through a trunk, the
trunk is said to be "seized," and is
now ready to carry the number you have dialed
-- converted into multi-frequency beep tones
-- to a tandem in the area code and central office
Now when a blue-box operator wants to make a
call from New Orleans to New York he starts by
dialing the 800 number of a company which might
happen to have its headquarters in Los Angeles.
The sending side of the New Orleans tandem stops
sending 2600 out over the trunk to the central
office in Los Angeles, thereby seizing the trunk.
Your New Orleans tandem begins sending beep tones
to a tandem it has discovered idly whistling
2600 cycles in Los Angeles. The receiving end
of that L.A. tandem is seized, stops whistling
2600, listens to the beep tones which tell it
which L.A. phone to ring, and starts ringing
the 800 number. Meanwhile a mark made in the
New Orleans office accounting tape notes that
a call from your New Orleans phone to the 800
number in L.A. has been initiated and gives the
call a code number. Everything is routine so
far. But then the phone phreak presses his blue
box to the mouthpiece and pushes the over the
line again and assumes that New Orleans has hung
up because the trunk is whistling as if idle.
The L.A. tandem immediately ceases ringing the
L.A. 800 number. But as soon as the phreak takes
his finger off the 2600 button, the L.A. tandem
assumes the trunk is once again being used because
the 2600 is gone, so it listens for a new series
of digit tones - to find out where it must send
Thus the blue-box operator in New Orleans now
is in touch with a tandem in L.A. which is waiting
like an obedient genie to be told what to do
next. The blue-box owner then beeps out the ten
digits of the New York number which tell the
L.A. tandem to relay a call to New York City.
Which it promptly does. As soon as your party
picks up the phone in New York, the side of the
New Orleans tandem facing you stops sending 2600
cycles to you and stars carrying his voice to
you by way of the L.A. tandem. A notation is
made on the accounting tape that the connection
has been made on the 800 call which had been
initiated and noted earlier. When you stop talking
to New York a notation is made that the 800 call
At three the next morning, when the phone company's
accounting computer starts reading back over
the master accounting tape for the past day,
it records that a call of a certain length of
time was made from your New Orleans home to an
L.A. 800 number and, of course, the accounting
computer has been trained to ignore those toll-free
800 calls when compiling your monthly bill.
"All they can prove is that you made an
800 toll-free call," Gilbertson the inventor
concludes. "Of course, if you're foolish
enough to talk for two hours on an 800 call,
and they've installed one of their special anti-fraud
computer programs to watch out for such things,
they may spot you and ask why you took two hours
talking to Army Recruiting's 800 number when
you're 4-F. But if you do it from a pay phone,
they may discover something peculiar the next
day -- if they've got a blue-box hunting program
in their computer -- but you'll be a long time
gone from the pay phone by then. Using a pay
phone is almost guaranteed safe."
"What about the recent series of blue-box
arrests all across the country -- New York, Cleveland,
and so on?" I asked. "How were they
caught so easily?" "From what I can
tell, they made one big mistake: they were seizing
trunks using an area code plus 555-1212 instead
of an 800 number. Using 555 is easy to detect
because when you send multi-frequency beep tones
of 555 you get a charge for it on your tape and
the accounting computer knows there's something
wrong when it tries to bill you for a two-hour
call to Akron, Ohio, information, and it drops
a trouble card which goes right into the hands
of the security agent if they're looking for
"Whoever sold those guys their blue boxes
didn't tell them how to use them properly, which
is fairly irresponsible. And they were fairly
stupid to use them at home all the time.
"But what those arrests really mean is
than an awful lot of blue boxes are flooding
into the country and that people are finding
them so easy to make that they know how to make
them before they know how to use them. Ma Bell
is in trouble."
And if a blue-box operator or a cassette-recorder
phone phreak sticks to pay phones and 800 numbers,
the phone company can't stop them? "Not
unless they change their entire nationwide long-lines
technology, which will take them a few billion
dollars and twenty years. Right now they can't
do a thing. They're screwed."
Captain Crunch Demonstrates His Famous
There is an underground telephone network in
this country. Gilbertson discovered it the very
day news of his activities hit the papers. That
evening his phone began ringing. Phone phreaks
from Seattle, from Florida, from New York, from
San Jose, and from Los Angeles began calling
him and telling him about the phone-phreak network.
He'd get a call from a phone phreak who'd say
nothing but, "Hang up and call this number."
When he dialed the number he'd find himself
tied into a conference of a dozen phone phreaks
arranged through a quirky switching station in
British Columbia. They identified themselves
as phone phreaks, they demonstrated their homemade
blue boxes which they called "M-Fers" (for
"multi-frequency," among other things)
for him, they talked shop about phone-phreak
devices. They let him in on their secrets on
the theory that if the phone company was after
him he must be trustworthy. And, Gilbertson recalls,
they stunned him with their technical sophistication.
I ask him how to get in touch with the phone-phreak
network. He digs around through a file of old
schematics and comes up with about a dozen numbers
in three widely separated area codes.
"Those are the centers," he tells
me. Alongside some of the numbers he writes in
first names or nicknames: names like Captain
Crunch, Dr. No, Frank Carson (also a code word
for a free call), Marty Freeman (code word for
M-F device), Peter Perpendicular Pimple, Alefnull,
and The Cheshire Cat. He makes checks alongside
the names of those among these top twelve who
are blind. There are five checks.
I ask him who this Captain Crunch person is.
"Oh. The Captain. He's probably the most
legendary phone phreak. He calls himself Captain
Crunch after the notorious Cap'n Crunch 2600
(Several years ago, Gilbertson explains, the
makers of Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal offered
a toy-whistle prize in every box as a treat for
the Cap'n Crunch set. Somehow a phone phreak
discovered that the toy whistle just happened
to produce a perfect 2600-cycle tone. When the
man who calls himself Captain Crunch was transferred
overseas to England with his Air Force unit,
he would receive scores of calls from his friends
them -- make them free of charge to them -- by
blowing his Cap'n Crunch whistle into his end.)
"Captain Crunch is one of the older phone
phreaks," Gilbertson tells me. "He's
an engineer who once got in a little trouble
for fooling around with the phone, but he can't
stop. Well, they guy drives across country in
a Volkswagen van with an entire switchboard and
a computerized super-sophisticated M-F-er in
the back. He'll pull up to a phone booth on a
lonely highway somewhere, snake a cable out of
his bus, hook it onto the phone and sit for hours,
days sometimes, sending calls zipping back and
forth across the country, all over the world...."
Back at my motel, I dialed the number he gave
me for "Captain Crunch" and asked for
G---- T-----, his real name, or at least the
name he uses when he's not dashing into a phone
booth beeping out M-F tones faster than a speeding
bullet and zipping phantomlike through the phone
company's long-distance lines. When G---- T-----
answered the phone and I told him I was preparing
a story for Esquire about phone phreaks, he became
"I don't do that. I don't do that anymore
at all. And if I do it, I do it for one reason
and one reason only. I'm learning about a system.
The phone company is a System. A computer is
a System, do you understand? If I do what I do,
it is only to explore a system. Computers, systems,
that's my bag. The phone company is nothing but
A tone of tightly restrained excitement enters
the Captain's voice when he starts talking about
systems. He begins to pronounce each syllable
with the hushed deliberation of an obscene caller.
Crunch's own account of his phreaker days
"Ma Bell is a system I want to explore.
It's a beautiful system, you know, but Ma Bell
screwed up. It's terrible because Ma Bell is
such a beautiful system, but she screwed up.
I learned how she screwed up from a couple of
blind kids who wanted me to build a device. A
certain device. They said it could make free
calls. I wasn't interested in free calls. But
when these blind kids told me I could make calls
into a computer, my eyes lit up. I wanted to
learn about computers. I wanted to learn about
Ma Bell's computers. So I build the little device,
but I built it wrong and Ma Bell found out. Ma
Bell can detect things like that. Ma Bell knows.
So I'm strictly rid of it now. I don't do it.
Except for learning purposes."
He pauses. "So you want to write an article.
Are you paying for this call? Hang up and call
this number." He gives me a number in a
area code a thousand miles away of his own. I
dial the number. "Hello again. This is Captain
Crunch. You are speaking to me on a toll-free
loop-around in Portland, Oregon. Do you know
what a toll-free loop around is? I'll tell you.
He explains to me that almost every exchange
in the country has open test numbers which allow
other exchanges to test their connections with
it. Most of these numbers occur in consecutive
pairs, such as 302 956-0041 and 302 956-0042.
Well, certain phone phreaks discovered that if
two people from anywhere in the country dial
the two consecutive numbers they can talk together
just as if one had called the other's number,
with no charge to either of them, of course.
"Now our voice is looping around in a 4A
switching machine up there in Canada, zipping
back down to me," the Captain tells me. "My
voice is looping around up there and back down
to you. And it can't ever cost anyone money.
The phone phreaks and I have compiled a list
of many many of these numbers. You would be surprised
if you saw the list. I could show it to you.
But I won't. I'm out of that now. I'm not out
to screw Ma Bell. I know better. If I do anything
it's for the pure knowledge of the System. You
can learn to do fantastic things. Have you ever
heard eight tandems stacked up? Do you know the
sound of tandems stacking and unstacking? Give
me your phone number. Okay. Hang up now and wait
Slightly less than a minute later the phone
rang and the Captain was on the line, his voice
sounding far more excited, almost aroused. "I
wanted to show you what it's like to stack up
tandems. To stack up tandems." (Whenever
the Captain says "stack up" it sounds
as if he is licking his lips.)
"How do you like the connection you're
on now?" the Captain asks me. "It's
a raw tandem. A raw tandem. Ain't nothin' up
to it but a tandem. Now I'm going to show you
what it's like to stack up. Blow off. Land in
a far away place. To stack that tandem up, whip
back and forth across the country a few times,
then shoot on up to Moscow.
"Listen," Captain Crunch continues.
"Listen. I've got line tie on my switchboard
here, and I'm gonna let you hear me stack and
unstack tandems. Listen to this. It's gonna blow
First I hear a super rapid-fire pulsing of the
flutelike phone tones, then a pause, then another
popping burst of tones, then another, then another.
Each burst is followed by a beep-kachink sound.
"We have now stacked up four tandems,"
said Captain Crunch, sounding somewhat remote.
"That's four tandems stacked up. Do you
know what that means? That means I'm whipping
back and forth, back and forth twice, across
the country, before coming to you. I've been
known to stack up twenty tandems at a time. Now,
just like I said, I'm going to shoot up to Moscow."
There is a new, longer series of beeper pulses
over the line, a brief silence, then a ring.
"Hello," answers a far-off voice.
"Hello. Is this the American Embassy Moscow?"
"Well, yes, how are things there?"
"Oh. Well, everything okay, I guess."
"Okay. Thank you."
They hang up, leaving a confused series of beep-kachink
sounds hanging in mid-ether in the wake of the
call before dissolving away.
The Captain is pleased. "You believe me
now, don't you? Do you know what I'd like to
do? I'd just like to call up your editor at Esquire
and show him just what it sounds like to stack
and unstack tandems. I'll give him a show that
will blow his mind. What's his number?
I ask the Captain what kind of device he was
using to accomplish all his feats. The Captain
is pleased at the question.
"You could tell it was special, couldn't
you?" Ten pulses per second. That's faster
than the phone company's equipment. Believe me,
this unit is the most famous unit in the country.
There is no other unit like it. Believe me."
"Yes, I've heard about it. Some other phone
phreaks have told me about it." "They
have been referring to my, ahem, unit? What is
it they said? Just out of curiosity, did they
tell you it was a highly sophisticated computer-operated
unit, with acoustical coupling for receiving
outputs and a switch-board with multiple-line-tie
capability? Did they tell you that the frequency
tolerance is guaranteed to be not more than .05
percent? The amplitude tolerance less than .01
decibel? Those pulses you heard were perfect.
They just come faster than the phone company.
Those were high-precision op-amps. Op-amps are
instrumentation amplifiers designed for ultra-stable
amplification, super-low distortion and accurate
frequency response. Did they tell you it can
operate in temperatures from -55 degrees C to
+125 degrees C?"
I admit that they did not tell me all that.
"I built it myself," the Captain goes
on. "If you were to go out and buy the components
from an industrial wholesaler it would cost you
at least $1500. I once worked for a semiconductor
company and all this didn't cost me a cent. Do
you know what I mean? Did they tell you about
how I put a call completely around the world?
I'll tell you how I did it. I M-Fed Tokyo inward,
who connected me to India, India connected me
to Greece, Greece connected me to Pretoria, South
Africa, South Africa connected me to South America,
I went from South America to London, I had a
London operator connect me to a New York operator,
I had New York connect me to a California operator
who rang the phone next to me. Needless to say
I had to shout to hear myself. But the echo was
far out. Fantastic. Delayed. It was delayed twenty
seconds, but I could hear myself talk to myself."
"You mean you were speaking into the mouthpiece
of one phone sending your voice around the world
into your ear through a phone on the other side
of your head?" I asked the Captain. I had
a vision of something vaguely autoerotic going
on, in a complex electronic way.
"That's right," said the Captain. "I've
also sent my voice around the world one way,
going east on one phone, and going west on the
other, going through cable one way, satellite
the other, coming back together at the same time,
ringing the two phones simultaneously and picking
them up and whipping my voice both ways around
the world back to me. Wow. That was a mind blower."
"You mean you sit there with both phones
on your ear and talk to yourself around the world,"
I said incredulously.
"Yeah. Um hum. That's what I do. I connect
the phone together and sit there and talk."
"What do you say? What do you say to yourself
when you're connected?"
"Oh, you know. Hello test one two three,"
he says in a low-pitched voice.
"Hello test one two three," he replied
to himself in a high-pitched voice.
"Hello test one two three," he repeats
"Hello test one two three," he replies,
"I sometimes do this: Hello Hello Hello
Hello, Hello, hello," he trails off and
breaks into laughter.
Early phreaks on “phone trip” to tinker with payphones.
Image: Mark Bernay (@phonetrips)
Why Captain Crunch Hardly Ever Taps Phones
Using internal phone-company codes, phone phreaks
have learned a simple method for tapping phones.
Phone-company operators have in front of them
a board that holds verification jacks. It allows
them to plug into conversations in case of emergency,
to listen in to a line to determine if the line
is busy or the circuits are busy. Phone phreaks
have learned to beep out the codes which lead
them to a verification operator, tell the verification
operator they are switchmen from some other area
code testing out verification trunks. Once the
operator hooks them into the verification trunk,
they disappear into the board for all practical
purposes, slip unnoticed into any one of the
10,000 to 100,000 numbers in that central office
without the verification operator knowing what
they're doing, and of course without the two
parties to the connection knowing there is a
phantom listener present on their line. Toward
the end of my hour-long first conversation with
him, I asked the Captain if he ever tapped phones.
"Oh no. I don't do that. I don't think
it's right," he told me firmly. "I
have the power to do it but I don't... Well one
time, just one time, I have to admit that I did.
There was this girl, Linda, and I wanted to find
out... you know. I tried to call her up for a
date. I had a date with her the last weekend
and I thought she liked me. I called her up,
man, and her line was busy, and I kept calling
and it was still busy. Well, I had just learned
about this system of jumping into lines and I
said to myself, 'Hmmm. Why not just see if it
works. It'll surprise her if all of a sudden
I should pop up on her line. It'll impress her,
if anything.' So I went ahead and did it. I M-Fed
into the line. My M-F-er is powerful enough when
patched directly into the mouthpiece to trigger
a verification trunk without using an operator
the way the other phone phreaks have to.
"I slipped into the line and there she
was talking to another boyfriend. Making sweet
talk to him. I didn't make a sound because I
was so disgusted. So I waited there for her to
hang up, listening to her making sweet talk to
the other guy. You know. So as soon as she hung
up I instantly M-F-ed her up and all I said was,
'Linda, we're through.' And I hung up. And it
blew her head off. She couldn't figure out what
the hell happened.
"But that was the only time. I did it thinking
I would surprise her, impress her. Those were
all my intentions were, and well, it really kind
of hurt me pretty badly, and... and ever since
then I don't go into verification trunks."
Moments later my first conversation with the
Captain comes to a close.
"Listen," he says, his spirits somewhat
cheered, "listen. What you are going to
hear when I hang up is the sound of tandems unstacking.
Layer after layer of tandems unstacking until
there's nothing left of the stack, until it melts
away into nothing. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep,"
he concludes, his voice descending to a whisper
with each cheep.
He hangs up. The phone suddenly goes into four
spasms: kachink cheep. Kachink cheep kachink
cheep kachink cheep, and the complex connection
has wiped itself out like the Cheshire cat's
The MF Boogie Blues
The next number I choose from the select list
of phone-phreak alumni, prepared for me by the
blue-box inventor, is a Memphis number. It is
the number of Joe Engressia, the first and still
perhaps the most accomplished blind phone phreak.
Three years ago Engressia was a nine-day wonder
in newspapers and magazines all over America
because he had been discovered whistling free
long-distance connections for fellow students
at the University of South Florida. Engressia
was born with perfect pitch: he could whistle
phone tones better than the phone-company's equipment.
Engressia might have gone on whistling in the
dark for a few friends for the rest of his life
if the phone company hadn't decided to expose
him. He was warned, disciplined by the college,
and the whole case became public. In the months
following media reports of his talent, Engressia
began receiving strange calls. There were calls
from a group of kids in Los Angeles who could
do some very strange things with the quirky General
Telephone and Electronics circuitry in L.A. suburbs.
There were calls from a group of mostly blind
kids in ----, California, who had been doing
some interesting experiments with Cap'n Crunch
whistles and test loops. There was a group in
Seattle, a group in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
a few from New York, a few scattered across the
country. Some of them had already equipped themselves
with cassette and electronic M-F devices. For
some of these groups, it was the first time they
knew of the others.
The exposure of Engressia was the catalyst that
linked the separate phone-phreak centers together.
They all called Engressia. They talked to him
about what he was doing and what they were doing.
And then he told them -- the scattered regional
centers and lonely independent phone phreakers
-- about each other, gave them each other's numbers
to call, and within a year the scattered phone-phreak
centers had grown into a nationwide underground.
Joe Engressia is only twenty-two years old now,
but along the phone-phreak network he is "the
old man," accorded by phone phreaks something
of the reverence the phone company bestows on
Alexander Graham Bell. He seldom needs to make
calls anymore. The phone phreaks all call him
and let him know what new tricks, new codes,
new techniques they have learned. Every night
he sits like a sightless spider in his little
apartment receiving messages from every tendril
of his web. It is almost a point of pride with
Joe that they call him.
But when I reached him in his Memphis apartment
that night, Joe Engressia was lonely, jumpy and
"God, I'm glad somebody called. I don't
know why tonight of all nights I don't get any
calls. This guy around here got drunk again tonight
and propositioned me again. I keep telling him
we'll never see eye to eye on this subject, if
you know what I mean. I try to make light of
it, you know, but he doesn't get it. I can head
him out there getting drunker and I don't know
what he'll do next. It's just that I'm really
all alone here, just moved to Memphis, it's the
first time I'm living on my own, and I'd hate
for it to all collapse now. But I won't go to
bed with him. I'm just not very interested in
sex and even if I can't see him I know he's ugly.
"Did you hear that? That's him banging
a bottle against the wall outside. He's nice.
Well forget about it. You're doing a story on
phone phreaks? Listen to this. It's the MF Boogie
Sure enough, a jumpy version of Muskrat Ramble
boogies its way over the line, each note one
of those long-distance phone tones. The music
stops. A huge roaring voice blasts the phone
off my ear:
"AND THE QUESTION IS..." roars the
"CAN A BLIND PERSON HOOK UP AN AMPLIFIER
ON HIS OWN?" The roar ceases. A high-pitched
operator-type voice replaces it. "This is
Southern Braille Tel. & Tel. Have tone, will
This is succeeded by a quick series of M-F tones,
a swift "kachink" and a deep reassuring
voice: "If you need home care, call the
visiting-nurses association. First National time
in Honolulu is 4:32 p.m." Joe back in his
Joe voice again:
"Are we seeing eye to eye? 'Si, si,' said
the blind Mexican. Ahem. Yes. Would you like
to know the weather in Tokyo?" This swift
manic sequence of phone-phreak vaudeville stunts
and blind-boy jokes manages to keep Joe's mind
off his tormentor only as long as it lasts.
"The reason I'm in Memphis, the reason
I have to depend on that homosexual guy, is that
this is the first time I've been able to live
on my own and make phone trips on my own. I've
been banned from all central offices around home
in Florida, they knew me too well, and at the
University some of my fellow scholars were always
harassing me because I was on the dorm pay phone
all the time and making fun of me because of
my fat ass, which of course I do have, it's my
physical fatness program, but I don't like to
hear it every day, and if I can't phone trip
and I can't phone phreak, I can't imagine what
I'd do, I've been devoting three quarters of
my life to it.
"I moved to Memphis because I wanted to
be on my own as well as because it has a Number
5 crossbar switching system and some interesting
little independent phone-company districts nearby
and so far they don't seem to know who I am so
I can go on phone tripping, and for me phone
tripping is just as important as phone phreaking."
Phone tripping, Joe explains, begins with calling
up a central-office switch room. He tells the
switchman in a polite earnest voice that he's
a blind college student interested in telephones,
and could he perhaps have a guided tour of the
switching station? Each step of the tour Joe
likes to touch and feel relays, caress switching
circuits, switchboards, crossbar arrangements.
So when Joe Engressia phone phreaks he feels
his way through the circuitry of the country
garden of forking paths, he feels switches shift,
relays shunt, crossbars swivel, tandems engage
and disengage even as he hears -- with perfect
pitch -- his M-F pulses make the entire Bell
system dance to his tune. Just one month ago
Joe took all his savings out of his bank and
left home, over the emotional protests of his
mother. "I ran away from home almost," he
likes to say. Joe found a small apartment house
on Union Avenue and began making phone trips.
He'd take a bus a hundred miles south in Mississippi
to see some old-fashioned Bell equipment still
in use in several states, which had been puzzling.
He'd take a bus three hundred miles to Charlotte,
North Carolina, to look at some brand-new experimental
equipment. He hired a taxi to drive him twelve
miles to a suburb to tour the office of a small
phone company with some interesting idiosyncrasies
in its routing system. He was having the time
of his life, he said, the most freedom and pleasure
he had known.
In that month he had done very little long-distance
phone phreaking from his own phone. He had begun
to apply for a job with the phone company, he
told me, and he wanted to stay away from anything
"Any kind of job will do, anything as menial
as the most lowly operator.
That's probably all they'd give me because I'm
blind. Even though I probably know more than
most switchmen. But that's okay. I want to work
for Ma Bell. I don't hate Ma Bell the way Gilbertson
and some phone phreaks do. I don't want to screw
Ma Bell. With me it's the pleasure of pure knowledge.
There's something beautiful about the system
when you know it intimately the way I do. But
I don't know how much they know about me here.
I have a very intuitive feel for the condition
of the line I'm on, and I think they're monitoring
me off and on lately, but I haven't been doing
much illegal. I have to make a few calls to switchmen
once in a while which aren't strictly legal,
and once I took an acid trip and was having these
auditory hallucinations as if I were trapped
and these planes were dive-bombing me, and all
of sudden I had to phone phreak out of there.
For some reason I had to call Kansas City, but
A Warning Is Delivered
At this point -- one o'clock in my time zone
-- a loud knock on my motel-room door interrupts
our conversation. Outside the door I find a uniformed
security guard who informs me that there has
been an "emergency phone call" for
me while I have been on the line and that the
front desk has sent him up to let me know.
Two seconds after I say good-bye to Joe and
hang up, the phone rings. "Who were you
talking to?" the agitated voice demands.
The voice belongs to Captain Crunch. "I
called because I decided to warn you of something.
I decided to warn you to be careful. I don't
want this information you get to get to the radical
underground. I don't want it to get into the
wrong hands. What would you say if I told you
it's possible for three phone phreaks to saturate
the phone system of the nation. Saturate it.
Busy it out. All of it. I know how to do this.
I'm not gonna tell. A friend of mine has already
saturated the trunks between Seattle and New
York. He did it with a computerized M-F-er hitched
into a special Manitoba exchange. But there are
other, easier ways to do it."
Just three people? I ask. How is that possible?
"Have you ever heard of the long-lines
guard frequency? Do you know about stacking tandems
with 17 and 2600? Well, I'd advise you to find
out about it. I'm not gonna tell you. But whatever
you do, don't let this get into the hands of
the radical underground."
(Later Gilbertson, the inventor, confessed that
while he had always been skeptical about the
Captain's claim of the sabotage potential of
trunk-tying phone phreaks, he had recently heard
certain demonstrations which convinced him the
Captain was not speaking idly. "I think
it might take more than three people, depending
on how many machines like Captain Crunch's were
available. But even though the Captain sounds
a little weird, he generally turns out to know
what he's talking about.")
"You know," Captain Crunch continues
in his admonitory tone, "you know the younger
phone phreaks call Moscow all the time. Suppose
everybody were to call Moscow. I'm no right-winger.
But I value my life. I don't want the Commies
coming over and dropping a bomb on my head. That's
why I say you've got to be careful about who
gets this information."
The Captain suddenly shifts into a diatribe
against those phone phreaks who don't like the
"They don't understand, but Ma Bell knows
everything they do. Ma Bell knows. Listen, is
this line hot? I just heard someone tap in. I'm
not paranoid, but I can detect things like that.
Well, even if it is, they know that I know that
they know that I have a bulk eraser. I'm very
clean." The Captain pauses, evidently torn
between wanting to prove to the phone-company
monitors that he does nothing illegal, and the
desire to impress Ma Bell with his prowess. "Ma
Bell knows how good I am. And I am quite good.
I can detect reversals, tandem switching, everything
that goes on on a line. I have relative pitch
now. Do you know what that means? My ears are
a $20,000 piece of equipment. With my ears I
can detect things they can't hear with their
equipment. I've had employment problems. I've
lost jobs. But I want to show Ma Bell how good
I am. I don't want to screw her, I want to work
for her. I want to do good for her. I want to
help her get rid of her flaws and become perfect.
That's my number-one goal in life now." The
Captain concludes his warnings and tells me he
has to be going.
"I've got a little action lined up for tonight,"
he explains and hangs up.
Before I hang up for the night, I call Joe Engressia
back. He reports that his tormentor has finally
gone to sleep -- "He's not blind drunk,
that's the way I get, ahem, yes; but you might
say he's in a drunken stupor." I make a
date to visit Joe in Memphis in two days.
A Phone Phreak Call Takes
Care of Business
The next morning I attend a gathering of four
phone phreaks in ----- (a California suburb).
The gathering takes place in a comfortable split-level
home in an upper-middle-class subdivision. Heaped
on the kitchen table are the portable cassette
recorders, M-F cassettes, phone patches, and
line ties of the four phone phreaks present.
On the kitchen counter next to the telephone
is a shoe-box-size blue box with thirteen large
toggle switches for the tones. The parents of
the host phone phreak, Ralph, who is blind, stay
in the living room with their sighted children.
They are not sure exactly what Ralph and his
friends do with the phone or if it's strictly
legal, but he is blind and they are pleased he
has a hobby which keeps him busy.
The group has been working at reestablishing
the historic "2111" conference, reopening
some toll-free loops, and trying to discover
the dimensions of what seem to be new initiatives
against phone phreaks by phone-company security
It is not long before I get a chance to see,
to hear, Randy at work. Randy is known among
the phone phreaks as perhaps the finest con man
in the game. Randy is blind. He is pale, soft
and pear-shaped, he wears baggy pants and a wrinkly
nylon white sport shirt, pushes his head forward
from hunched shoulders somewhat like a turtle
inching out of its shell. His eyes wander, crossing
and recrossing, and his forehead is somewhat
pimply. He is only sixteen years old.
But when Randy starts speaking into a telephone
mouthpiece his voice becomes so stunningly authoritative
it is necessary to look again to convince yourself
it comes from a chubby adolescent Randy. Imagine
the voice of a crack oil-rig foreman, a tough,
sharp, weather-beaten Marlboro man of forty.
Imagine the voice of a brilliant performance-fund
gunslinger explaining how he beats the Dow Jones
by thirty percent. Then imagine a voice that
could make those two He is speaking to a switchman
in Detroit. The phone company in Detroit had
closed up two toll-free loop pairs for no apparent
reason, although heavy use by phone phreaks all
over the country may have been detected. Randy
is telling the switchman how to open up the loop
and make it free again:
"How are you, buddy. Yeah. I'm on the board
in here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we've been trying
to run some tests on your loop-arounds and we
find'em busied out on both sides.... Yeah, we've
been getting a 'BY' on them, what d'ya say, can
you drop cards on 'em? Do you have 08 on your
number group? Oh that's okay, we've had this
trouble before, we may have to go after the circuit.
Here lemme give 'em to you: your frame is 05,
vertical group 03, horizontal 5, vertical file
3. Yeah, we'll hang on here.... Okay, found it?
Good. Right, yeah, we'd like to clear that busy
out. Right. All you have to do is look for your
key on the mounting plate, it's in your miscellaneous
trunk frame. Okay? Right. Now pull your key from
NOR over the LCT. Yeah. I don't know why that
happened, but we've been having trouble with
that one. Okay. Thanks a lot fella. Be seein'
Randy hangs up, reports that the switchman was
a little inexperienced with the loop-around circuits
on the miscellaneous trunk frame, but that the
loop has been returned to its free-call status.
Delighted, phone phreak Ed returns the pair
of numbers to the active-status column in his
directory. Ed is a superb and painstaking researcher.
With almost Talmudic thoroughness he will trace
tendrils of hints through soft-wired mazes of
intervening phone-company circuitry back through
complex linkages of switching relays to find
the location and identity of just one toll-free
loop. He spends hours and hours, every day, doing
this sort of thing. He has somehow compiled a
directory of eight hundred
"Band-six in-WATS numbers" located
in over forty states. Band-six in-WATS numbers
are the big 800 numbers -- the ones that can
be dialed into free from anywhere in the country.
Ed the researcher, a nineteen-year-old engineering
student, is also a superb technician. He put
together his own working blue box from scratch
at age seventeen. (He is sighted.) This evening
after distributing the latest issue of his in-WATS
directory (which has been typed into Braille
for the blind phone phreaks), he announces he
has made a major new breakthrough:
"I finally tested it and it works, perfectly.
I've got this switching matrix which converts
any touch-tone phone into an M-F-er."
The tones you hear in touch-tone phones are
not the M-F tones that operate the long-distance
switching system. Phone phreaks believe A.T.&T.
had deliberately equipped touch tones with a
different set of frequencies to avoid putting
the six master M-F tones in the hands of every
touch-tone owner. Ed's complex switching matrix
puts the six master tones, in effect put a blue
box, in the hands of every touch-tone owner.
Ed shows me pages of schematics, specifications
and parts lists. "It's not easy to build,
but everything here is in the Heathkit catalog."
Ed asks Ralph what progress he has made in his
attempts to reestablish a long-term open conference
line for phone phreaks. The last big conference
-- the historic "2111" conference --
had been arranged through an unused Telex test-board
trunk somewhere in the innards of a 4A switching
machine in Vancouver, Canada. For months phone
phreaks could M-F their way into Vancouver, beep
out 604 (the Vancouver area code) and then beep
out 2111 (the internal phone-company code for
Telex testing), and find themselves at any time,
day or night, on an open wire talking with an
array of phone phreaks from coast to coast, operators
from Bermuda, Tokyo and London who are phone-phreak
sympathizers, and miscellaneous guests and technical
experts. The conference was a massive exchange
of information. Phone phreaks picked each other's
brains clean, then developed new ways to pick
the phone company's brains clean. Ralph gave
M F Boogies concerts with his home-entertainment-type
electric organ, Captain Crunch demonstrated his
round-the-world prowess with his notorious computerized
unit and dropped leering hints of the "action"
he was getting with his girl friends. (The Captain
lives out or pretends to live out several kinds
of fantasies to the gossipy delight of the blind
phone phreaks who urge him on to further triumphs
on behalf of all of them.) The somewhat rowdy
Northwest phone-phreak crowd let their bitter
internal feud spill over into the peaceable conference
line, escalating shortly into guerrilla warfare;
Carl the East Coast international tone relations
expert demonstrated newly opened direct M-F routes
to central offices on the island of Bahrein in
the Persian Gulf, introduced a new phone-phreak
friend of his in Pretoria, and explained the
technical operation of the new Oakland-to Vietnam
linkages. (Many phone phreaks pick up spending
money by M-F-ing calls from relatives to Vietnam
G.I.'s, charging $5 for a whole hour of trans-Pacific
conversation.) Day and night the conference line
was never dead. Blind phone phreaks all over
the country, lonely and isolated in homes filled
with active sighted brothers and sisters, or
trapped with slow and unimaginative blind kids
in straitjacket schools for the blind, knew that
no matter how late it got they could dial up
the conference and find instant electronic communion
with two or three other blind kids awake over
on the other side of America. Talking together
on a phone hookup, the blind phone phreaks say,
is not much different from being there together.
Physically, there was nothing more than a two-inch-square
wafer of titanium inside a vast machine on Vancouver
Island. For the blind kids there meant an exhilarating
feeling of being in touch, through a kind of
skill and magic which was peculiarly their own.
Last April 1, however, the long Vancouver Conference
was shut off. The phone phreaks knew it was coming.
Vancouver was in the process of converting from
a step-by-step system to a 4A machine and the
2111 Telex circuit was to be wiped out in the
process. The phone phreaks learned the actual
day on which the conference would be erased about
a week ahead of time over the phone company's
For the next frantic seven days every phone
phreak in America was on and off the 2111 conference
twenty-four hours a day. Phone phreaks who were
just learning the game or didn't have M-F capability
were boosted up to the conference by more experienced
phreaks so they could get a glimpse of what it
was like before it disappeared. Top phone phreaks
searched distant area codes for new conference
possibilities without success. Finally in the
early morning of April 1, the end came.
"I could feel it coming a couple hours
before midnight," Ralph remembers. "You
could feel something going on in the lines. Some
static began showing up, then some whistling
wheezing sound. Then there were breaks. Some
people got cut off and called right back in,
but after a while some people were finding they
were cut off and couldn't get back in at all.
It was terrible. I lost it about one a.m., but
managed to slip in again and stay on until the
thing died... I think it was about four in the
morning. There were four of us still hanging
on when the conference disappeared into nowhere
for good. We all tried to M-F up to it again
of course, but we got silent termination. There
was nothing there."
The Legendary Mark Bernay Turns Out To
Be "The Midnight Skulker"
Mark Bernay. I had come across that name before.
It was on Gilbertson's select list of phone phreaks.
The California phone phreaks had spoken of a
mysterious Mark Bernay as perhaps the first and
oldest phone phreak on the West Coast. And in
fact almost every phone phreak in the West can
trace his origins either directly to Mark Bernay
or to a disciple of Mark Bernay. It seems that
five years ago this Mark Bernay (a pseudonym
he chose for himself) began traveling up and
down the West Coast pasting tiny stickers in
phone books all along his way. The stickers read
something like "Want to hear an interesting
tape recording? Call these numbers." The
numbers that followed were toll-free loop-around
pairs. When one of the curious called one of
the numbers he would hear a tape recording pre-hooked
into the loop by Bernay which explained the use
of loop-around pairs, gave the numbers of several
more, and ended by telling the caller, "At
six o'clock tonight this recording will stop
and you and your friends can try it out. Have
"I was disappointed by the response at
Bernay told me, when I finally reached him at
one of his many numbers and he had dispensed
with the usual "I never do anything illegal"
formalities which experienced phone phreaks open
"I went all over the coast with these stickers
not only on pay phones, but I'd throw them in
front of high schools in the middle of the night,
I'd leave them unobtrusively in candy stores,
scatter them on main streets of small towns.
At first hardly anyone bothered to try it out.
I would listen in for hours and hours after six
o'clock and no one came on. I couldn't figure
out why people wouldn't be interested. Finally
these two girls in Oregon tried it out and told
all their friends and suddenly it began to spread."
Before his Johny Appleseed trip Bernay had already
gathered a sizable group of early pre-blue-box
phone phreaks together on loop-arounds in Los
Angeles. Bernay does not claim credit for the
original discovery of the loop-around numbers.
He attributes the discovery to an eighteen-year-old
reform school kid in Long Beach whose name he
forgets and who, he says, "just disappeared
one day." When Bernay himself discovered
loop-arounds independently, from clues in his
readings in old issues of the Automatic Electric
Technical Journal, he found dozens of the reform-school
kid's friends already using them. However, it
was one of Bernay's disciples in Seattle that
introduced phone phreaking to blind kids. The
Seattle kid who learned about loops through Bernay's
recording told a blind friend, the blind kid
taught the secret to his friends at a winter
camp for blind kids in Los Angeles. When the
camp session was over these kids took the secret
back to towns all over the West. This is how
the original blind kids became phone phreaks.
For them, for most phone phreaks in general,
it was the discovery of the possibilities of
loop-arounds which led them on to far more serious
and sophisticated phone-phreak methods, and which
gave them a medium for sharing their discoveries.
A year later a blind kid who moved back east
brought the technique to a blind kids' summer
camp in Vermont, which spread it along the East
Coast. All from a Mark Bernay sticker.
Bernay, who is nearly thirty years old now,
got his start when he was fifteen and his family
moved into an L.A. suburb serviced by General
Telephone and Electronics equipment. He became
fascinated with the differences between Bell
and G.T.&E. equipment. He learned he could
make interesting things happen by carefully timed
clicks with the disengage button. He learned
to interpret subtle differences in the array
of clicks, whirrs and kachinks he could hear
on his lines. He learned he could shift himself
around the switching relays of the L.A. area
code in a not-too-predictable fashion by interspersing
his own hook-switch clicks with the clicks within
the line. (Independent phone companies -- there
are nineteen hundred of them still left, most
of them tiny island principalities in Ma Bell's
vast empire -- have always been favorites with
phone phreaks, first as learning tools, then
as Archimedes platforms from which to manipulate
the huge Bell system. A phone phreak in Bell
territory will often M-F himself into an independent's
switching system, with switching idiosyncrasies
which can give him marvelous leverage over the
"I have a real affection for Automatic Electric
Equipment," Bernay told me. "There
are a lot of things you can play with. Things
break down in interesting ways."
Shortly after Bernay graduated from college
(with a double major in chemistry and philosophy),
he graduated from phreaking around with G.T.&E.
to the Bell System itself, and made his legendary
sticker-pasting journey north along the coast,
settling finally in Northwest Pacific Bell territory.
He discovered that if Bell does not break down
as interestingly as G.T.&E., it nevertheless
offers a lot of "things to play with."
Bernay learned to play with blue boxes. He established
his own personal switchboard and phone-phreak
research laboratory complex. He continued his
phone-phreak evangelism with ongoing sticker
campaigns. He set up two recording numbers, one
with instructions for beginning phone phreaks,
the other with latest news and technical developments
(along with some advanced instruction) gathered
from sources all over the country.
These days, Bernay told me, he had gone beyond
phone-phreaking itself. "Lately I've been
enjoying playing with computers more than playing
with phones. My personal thing in computers is
just like with phones, I guess -- the kick is
in finding out how to beat the system, how to
get at things I'm not supposed to know about,
how to do things with the system that I'm not
supposed to be able to do."
As a matter of fact, Bernay told me, he had
just been fired from his computer-programming
job for doing things he was not supposed to be
able to do. he had been working with a huge time-sharing
computer owned by a large corporation but shared
by many others. Access to the computer was limited
to those programmers and corporations that had
been assigned certain passwords. And each password
restricted its user to access to only the one
section of the computer cordoned off from its
own information storager. The password system
prevented companies and individuals from stealing
each other's information. "I figured out
how to write a program that would let me read
everyone else's password," Bernay reports.
"I began playing around with passwords.
I began letting the people who used the computer
know, in subtle ways, that I knew their passwords.
I began dropping notes to the computer supervisors
with hints that I knew what I know. I signed
them 'The Midnight Skulker.' I kept getting cleverer
and cleverer with my messages and devising ways
of showing them what I could do. I'm sure they
couldn't imagine I could do the things I was
showing them. But they never responded to me.
Every once in a while they'd change the passwords,
but I found out how to discover what the new
ones were, and I let them know. But they never
responded directly to the Midnight Skulker. I
even finally designed a program which they could
use to prevent my program from finding out what
it did. In effect I told them how to wipe me
out, The Midnight Skulker. It was a very clever
program. I started leaving clues about myself.
I wanted them to try and use it and then try
to come up with something to get around that
and reappear again. But they wouldn't play. I
wanted to get caught. I mean I didn't want to
get caught personally, but I wanted them to notice
me and admit that they noticed me. I wanted them
to attempt to respond, maybe in some interesting
Finally the computer managers became concerned
enough about the threat of information-stealing
to respond. However, instead of using The Midnight
Skulker's own elegant self-destruct program,
they called in their security personnel, interrogated
everyone, found an informer to identify Bernay
as The Midnight Skulker, and fired him.
"At first the security people advised the
company to hire me full-time to search out other
flaws and discover other computer freaks. I might
have liked that. But I probably would have turned
into a double double agent rather than the double
agent they wanted. I might have resurrected The
Midnight Skulker and tried to catch myself. Who
knows? Anyway, the higher-ups turned the whole
You Can Tap the F.B.I.'s Crime Control Computer
in the Comfort of Your Own Home, Perhaps
Computer freaking may be the wave of the future.
It suits the phone-phreak sensibility perfectly.
Gilbertson, the blue-box inventor and a lifelong
phone phreak, has also gone on from phone-phreaking
to computer-freaking. Before he got into the
blue-box business Gilbertson, who is a highly
skilled programmer, devised programs for international
recording equipment around 1968, which I used to edit these tapes and prepare them for playing on a public phone number. Image: Mark Bernay (@phonetrips)
But he began playing with computers in earnest
when he learned he could use his blue box in
tandem with the computer terminal installed in
his apartment by the instrumentation firm he
worked for. The print-out terminal and keyboard
was equipped with acoustical coupling, so that
by coupling his little ivory Princess phone to
the terminal and then coupling his blue box on
that, he could M-F his way into other computers
with complete anonymity, and without charge;
program and re-program them at will; feed them
false or misleading information; tap and steal
from them. He explained to me that he taps computers
by busying out all the lines, then going into
a verification trunk, listening into the passwords
and instructions one of the time sharers uses,
and them M-F-ing in and imitating them. He believes
it would not be impossible to creep into the
F.B.I's crime control computer through a local
police computer terminal and phreak around with
the F.B.I.'s memory banks. He claims he has succeeded
in re-programming a certain huge institutional
computer in such a way that it has cordoned off
an entire section of its circuitry for his personal
use, and at the same time conceals that arrangement
from anyone else's notice. I have been unable
to verify this claim.
Like Captain Crunch, like Alexander Graham Bell
(pseudonym of a disgruntled-looking East Coast
engineer who claims to have invented the black
box and now sells black and blue boxes to gamblers
and radical heavies), like most phone phreaks,
Gilbertson began his career trying to rip off
pay phones as a teenager. Figure them out, then
rip them off. Getting his dime back from the
pay phone is the phone phreak's first thrilling
rite of passage. After learning the usual eighteen
different ways of getting his dime back, Gilbertson
learned how to make master keys to coin-phone
cash boxes, and get everyone else's dimes back.
He stole some phone-company equipment and put
together his own home switchboard with it. He
learned to make a simple "bread-box"
device, of the kind used by bookies in the Thirties
(bookie gives a number to his betting clients;
the phone with that number is installed in some
widow lady's apartment, but is rigged to ring
in the bookie's shop across town, cops trace
big betting number and find nothing but the widow).
Not long after that afternoon in 1968 when,
deep in the stacks of an engineering library,
he came across a technical journal with the phone
tone frequencies and rushed off to make his first
blue box, not long after that Gilbertson abandoned
a very promising career in physical chemistry
and began selling blue boxes for $1,500 apiece.
"I had to leave physical chemistry. I just
ran out of interesting things to learn,"
he told me one evening. We had been talking in
the apartment of the man who served as the link
between Gilbertson and the syndicate in arranging
the big $300,000 blue-box deal which fell through
because of legal trouble. There has been some
"No more interesting things to learn,"
he continues. "Physical chemistry turns
out to be a sick subject when you take it to
its highest level. I don't know. I don't think
I could explain to you how it's sick. You have
to be there. But you get, I don't know, a false
feeling of omnipotence. I suppose it's like phone-phreaking
that way. This huge thing is there. This whole
system. And there are holes in it and you slip
into them like Alice and you're pretending you're
doing something you're actually not, or at least
it's no longer you that's doing what you thought
you were doing. It's all Lewis Carroll. Physical
chemistry and phone-phreaking. That's why you
have these phone-phreak pseudonyms like The Cheshire
Cat, the Red King, and The Snark. But there's
something about phone-phreaking that you don't
find in physical chemistry."
He looks up at me:
"Did you ever steal anything?"
"Then you know! You know the rush you get.
It's not just knowledge, like physical chemistry.
It's forbidden knowledge. You know. You can learn
about anything under the sun and be bored to
death with it. But the idea that it's illegal.
Look: you can be small and mobile and smart and
you're ripping off somebody large and powerful
and very dangerous.
People like Gilbertson and Alexander Graham
Bell are always talking about ripping off the
phone company and screwing Ma Bell. But if they
were shown a single button and told that by pushing
it they could turn the entire circuitry of A.T.&T.
into molten puddles, they probably wouldn't push
it. The disgruntled-inventor phone phreak needs
the phone system the way the lapsed Catholic
needs the Church, the way Satan needs a God,
the way The Midnight Skulker needed, more than
anything else, response.
Later that evening Gilbertson finished telling
me how delighted he was at the flood of blue
boxes spreading throughout the country, how delighted
he was to know that "this time they're really
screwed." He suddenly shifted gears. "Of
course. I do have this love/hate thing about
Ma Bell. In a way I almost like the phone company.
I guess I'd be very sad if they were to disintegrate.
In a way it's just that after having been so
good they turn out to have these things wrong
with them. It's those flaws that allow me to
get in and mess with them, but I don't know.
There's something about it that gets to you and
makes you want to get to it, you know."
I ask him what happens when he runs out of interesting,
forbidden things to learn about the phone system.
"I don't know, maybe I'd go to work for
them for a while."
"In security even?"
"I'd do it, sure. I just as soon play --
I'd just as soon work on either side."
"Even figuring out how to trap phone phreaks?
I said, recalling Mark Bernay's game."
"Yes, that might be interesting. Yes, I
could figure out how to outwit the phone phreaks.
Of course if I got too good at it, it might become
boring again. Then I'd have to hope the phone
phreaks got much better and outsmarted me for
a while. That would move the quality of the game
up one level. I might even have to help them
out, you know, 'Well, kids, I wouldn't want this
to get around but did you ever think of -- ?'
I could keep it going at higher and higher levels
The dealer speaks up for the first time. He has
been staring at the soft blinking patterns of
light and colors on the translucent tiled wall
facing him. (Actually there are no patterns:
the color and illumination of every tile is determined
by a computerized random-number generator designed
by Gilbertson which insures that there can be
no meaning to any sequence of events in the tiles.)
"Those are nice games you're talking about,"
says the dealer to his friend. "But I wouldn't
mind seeing them screwed. A telephone isn't private
anymore. You can't say anything you really want
to say on a telephone or you have to go through
that paranoid bullshit. 'Is it cool to talk on
the phone?' I mean, even if it is cool, if you
have to ask 'Is it cool,' then it isn't cool.
You know. 'Is it cool,' then it isn't cool. You
know. Like those blind kids, people are going
to start putting together their own private telephone
companies if they want to really talk. And you
know what else. You don't hear silences on the
phone anymore. They've got this time-sharing
thing on long-distance lines where you make a
pause and they snip out that piece of time and
use it to carry part of somebody else's conversation.
Instead of a pause, where somebody's maybe breathing
or sighing, you get this blank hole and you only
start hearing again when someone says a word
and even the beginning of the word is clipped
off. Silences don't count -- you're paying for
them, but they take them away from you. It's
not cool to talk and you can't hear someone when
they don't talk. What the hell good is the phone?
I wouldn't mind seeing them totally screwed."
The Big Memphis Bust
Joe Engressia never wanted to screw Ma Bell.
His dream had always been to work for her.
The day I visited Joe in his small apartment
on Union Avenue in Memphis, he was upset about
another setback in his application for a telephone
"They're stalling on it. I got a letter
today telling me they'd have to postpone the
interview I requested again. My landlord read
it for me. They gave me some runaround about
wanting papers on my rehabilitation status but
I think there's something else going on."
When I switched on the 40-watt bulb in Joe's
room -- he sometimes forgets when he has guests
-- it looked as if there was enough telephone
hardware to start a small phone company of his
There is one phone on top of his desk, one phone
sitting in an open drawer beneath the desk top.
Next to the desk-top phone is a cigar-box-size
M-F device with big toggle switches, and next
to that is some kind of switching and coupling
device with jacks and alligator plugs hanging
loose. Next to that is a Braille typewriter.
On the floor next to the desk, lying upside down
like a dead tortoise, is the half-gutted body
of an old black standard phone. Across the room
on a torn and dusty couch are two more phones,
one of them a touch-tone model; two tape recorders;
a heap of phone patches and cassettes, and a
life-size toy telephone.
Our conversation is interrupted every ten minutes
by phone phreaks from all over the country ringing
Joe on just about every piece of equipment but
the toy phone and the Braille typewriter. One
fourteen-year-old blind kid from Connecticut
calls up and tells Joe he's got a girl friend.
He wants to talk to Joe about girl friends. Joe
says they'll talk later in the evening when they
can be alone on the line. Joe draws a deep breath,
whistles him off the air with an earsplitting
2600-cycle whistle. Joe is pleased to get the
calls but he looked worried and preoccupied that
evening, his brow constantly furrowed over his
dark wandering eyes. In addition to the phone-company
stall, he has just learned that his apartment
house is due to be demolished in sixty days for
urban renewal. For all its shabbiness, the Union
Avenue apartment house has been Joe's first home-of-his-own
and he's worried that he may not find another
before this one is demolished.
But what really bothers Joe is that switchmen
haven't been listening to him. "I've been
doing some checking on 800 numbers lately, and
I've discovered that certain 800 numbers in New
Hampshire couldn't be reached from Missouri and
Kansas. Now it may sound like a small thing,
but I don't like to see sloppy work; it makes
me feel bad about the lines. So I've been calling
up switching offices and reporting it, but they
haven't corrected it. I called them up for the
third time today and instead of checking they
just got mad. Well, that gets me mad. I mean,
I do try to help them. There's something about
them I can't understand -- you want to help them
and they just try to say you're defrauding them."
It is Sunday evening and Joe invites me to join
him for dinner at a Holiday Inn. Frequently on
Sunday evening Joe takes some of his welfare
money, calls a cab, and treats himself to a steak
dinner at one of Memphis' thirteen Holiday Inns.
(Memphis is the headquarters of Holiday Inn.
Holiday Inns have been a favorite for Joe ever
since he made his first solo phone trip to a
Bell switching office in Jacksonville, Florida,
and stayed in the Holiday Inn there. He likes
to stay at Holiday Inns, he explains, because
they represent freedom to him and because the
rooms are arranged the same all over the country
so he knows that any Holiday Inn room is familiar
territory to him. Just like any telephone.)
Over steaks in the Pinnacle Restaurant of the
Holiday Inn Medical Center on Madison Avenue
in Memphis, Joe tells me the highlights of his
life as a phone phreak.
At age seven, Joe learned his first phone trick.
A mean baby-sitter, tired of listening to little
Joe play with the phone as he always did, constantly,
put a lock on the phone dial. "I got so
mad. When there's a phone sitting there and I
can't use it... so I started getting mad and
banging the receiver up and down. I noticed I
banged it once and it dialed one. Well, then
I tried banging it twice...." In a few minutes
Joe learned how to dial by pressing the hook
switch at the right time. "I was so excited
I remember going 'whoo whoo' and beat a box down
on the floor."
At age eight Joe learned about whistling. "I
was listening to some intercept non working-number
recording in L.A.- I was calling L.A. as far
back as that, but I'd mainly dial non working
numbers because there was no charge, and I'd
listen to these recordings all day. Well, I was
whistling 'cause listening to these recordings
can be boring after a while even if they are
from L.A., and all of a sudden, in the middle
of whistling, the recording clicked off. I fiddled
around whistling some more, and the same thing
happened. So I called up the switch room and
said, 'I'm Joe. I'm eight years old and I want
to know why when I whistle this tune the line
clicks off.' He tried to explain it to me, but
it was a little too technical at the time. I
went on learning. That was a thing nobody was
going to stop me from doing. The phones were
my life, and I was going to pay any price to
keep on learning. I knew I could go to jail.
But I had to do what I had to do to keep on learning."
The phone is ringing when we walk back into
Joe's apartment on Union Avenue. It is Captain
Crunch. The Captain has been following me around
by phone, calling up everywhere I go with additional
bits of advice and explanation for me and whatever
phone phreak I happen to be visiting. This time
the Captain reports he is calling from what he
describes as "my hideaway high up in the
Sierra Nevada." He pulses out lusty salvos
of M-F and tells Joe he is about to "go
out and get a little action tonight. Do some
phreaking of another kind, if you know what I
The Captain then tells me to make sure I understand
that what he told me about tying up the nation's
phone lines was true, but that he and the phone
phreaks he knew never used the technique for
sabotage. They only learned the technique to
help the phone company. "We do a lot of
troubleshooting for them. Like this New Hampshire/Missouri
WATS-line flaw I've been screaming about. We
help them more than they know." After we
say good-bye to the Captain and Joe whistles
him off the line, Joe tells me about a disturbing
dream he had the night before: "I had been
caught and they were taking me to a prison. It
was a long trip. They were taking me to a prison
a long long way away. And we stopped at a Holiday
Inn and it was my last night ever using the phone
and I was crying and crying, and the lady at
the Holiday Inn said, 'Gosh, honey, you should
never be sad at a Holiday Inn. You should always
be happy here. Especially since it's your last
night.' And that just made it worse and I was
sobbing so much I couldn't stand it."
Two weeks after I left Joe Engressia's apartment,
phone-company security agents and Memphis police
broke into it. Armed with a warrant, which they
left pinned to a wall, they confiscated every
piece of equipment in the room, including his
toy telephone. Joe was placed under arrest and
taken to the city jail where he was forced to
spend the night since he had no money and knew
no one in Memphis to call.
It is not clear who told Joe what that night,
but someone told him that the phone company had
an open-and-shut case against him because of
revelations of illegal activity he had made to
a phone-company undercover agent. By morning
Joe had become convinced that the reporter from
Esquire, with whom he had spoken two weeks ago,
was the undercover agent. He probably had ugly
thoughts about someone he couldn't see gaining
his confidence, listening to him talk about his
personal obsessions and dreams, while planning
all the while to lock him up.
"I really thought he was a reporter,"
Engressia told the Memphis Press-Seminar. "I
told him everything...." Feeling betrayed,
Joe proceeded to confess everything to the press
and police. As it turns out, the phone company
did use an undercover agent to trap Joe, although
it was not the Esquire reporter.
Ironically, security agents were alerted and
began to compile a case against Joe because of
one of his acts of love for the system: Joe had
called an internal service department to report
that he had located a group of defective long-distance
trunks, and to complain again about the New Hampshire/Missouri
WATS problem. Joe always liked Ma Bell's lines
to be clean and responsive. A suspicious switchman
reported Joe to the security agents who discovered
that Joe had never had a long-distance call charged
to his name.
Then the security agents learned that Joe was
planning one of his phone trips to a local switching
office. The security people planted one of their
agents in the switching office. He posed as a
student switchman and followed Joe around on
a tour. He was extremely friendly and helpful
to Joe, leading him around the office by the
arm. When the tour was over he offered Joe a
ride back to his apartment house. On the way
he asked Joe -- one tech man to another -- about "those
blue boxers" he'd heard about. Joe talked
about them freely, talked about his blue box
freely, and about all the other things he could
do with the phones.
The next day the phone-company security agents
slapped a monitoring tape on Joe's line, which
eventually picked up an illegal call. Then they
applied for the search warrant and broke in.
In court Joe pleaded not guilty to possession
of a blue box and theft of service. A sympathetic
judge reduced the charges to malicious mischief
and found him guilty on that count, sentenced
him to two thirty-day sentences to be served
concurrently and then suspended the sentence
on condition that Joe promise never to play with
phones again. Joe promised, but the phone company
refused to restore his service. For two weeks
after the trial Joe could not be reached except
through the pay phone at his apartment house,
and the landlord screened all calls for him.
Phone-phreak Carl managed to get through to
Joe after the trial, and reported that Joe sounded
crushed by the whole affair.
"What I'm worried about," Carl told
me, "is that Joe means it this time. The
promise. That he'll never phone-phreak again.
That's what he told me, that he's given up phone-phreaking
for good. I mean his entire life. He says he
knows they're going to be watching him so closely
for the rest of his life he'll never be able
to make a move without going straight to jail.
He sounded very broken up by the whole experience
of being in jail. It was awful to hear him talk
that way. I don't know. I hope maybe he had to
sound that way. Over the phone, you know."
He reports that the entire phone-phreak underground
is up in arms over the phone company's treatment
of Joe. "All the while Joe had his hopes
pinned on his application for a phone-company
job, they were stringing him along getting ready
to bust him. That gets me mad. Joe spent most
of his time helping them out. The bastards. They
think they can use him as an example. All of
sudden they're harassing us on the coast. Agents
are jumping up on our lines. They just busted
------'s mute yesterday and ripped out his lines.
But no matter what Joe does, I don't think we're
going to take this lying down.
At WOZ.org you find this Informations,
directly from WOZ himself:
Q From e-mail:
You mention that many of the incidents in "Pirates"
were out of order or happened with other people.
As I remember the story, Capt. Crunch was pulled
over in one of the Manhattan tunnels when police
did not recognize the "blue box". Did
this happen in CA or NY and were you in the van?
I don't know this exact story. I do remember
when he was arrested in a NY YMCA while making
a red box call. The FBI didn't care about the
red box, they just wanted him for leaving California
in violation of his parole.
Once, Steve Jobs and I tried to make our first
blue box call ever from a pay phone. This was
while I was a student at Berkeley. Steve's car
had broken down about 1 AM while driving from
Berkeley to his home in Los Altos where my Pinto
was parked. We walked to a nearby gas station
and were making our blue box call back to the
dorms to get Draper to give us a lift.
We got very scared when the operator kept coming
on the line. We didn't yet have the right operator
BS down pat. Then 2 cops pulled up. Steve's hand,
holding the blue box, was shaking. But our looks
led the cops to search the bushes for drugs or
something. With their backs turned, Steve passed
me the blue box and I got it in my jacket pocket.
The cops then patted us down and found the blue
box. We know we'd been caught. The cops asked
what it was and I said "an electronic music
synthesizer" and told them that you got
tones by pusing the keyboard buttons. The cop
asked what the red button (phone line seizing!)
was for and Steve said "calibration."
The cops were very interested in our blue box.
They held on to it and asked us to get in their
car while they drove out to our broken down car.
We were in the back seat, shaking. Finally, the
cop in the passenger seat turned around and handed
me the blue box, saying "a guy named Moog
beat you to it." Steve responded, saying
that Moog had sent us the schematics. The cops
actually believed us.
We got our lift back home from Draper. This
was the very night we'd met him. Then I drove
back to Berkeley. I fell asleep and totaled my
Pinto in Oakland about 3 AM. i walked to my dorm
and told my roommate how lucky it was I hadn't
paid the $25 quarterly parking fee that quarter.
Losing this car (no insurance) was one big reason
that I had to work after that school year to
pay for my fourth year of college. My career
kept going up and Apple got started and I didn't
get back for 10 years....Steve
BTW, the first time I met Draper was at a scheduled
meeting at a Burger King at the corner of 45
and Lex in NYC. I asked how I could be sure it
was really him, and he showed me his picture
on the front cover of the latest Village Voice.